If, as Samuel Johnson the English literary writer from the 1700s famously said, nothing concentrates the mind like the prospect of being hanged in the morning, then Israel’s recent refocusing of its acquisition plans for the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) suggests that the prospect of losing air superiority runs a close second.
Ironically, the Achilles heel of the Israeli Air Force (IAF) appears to lie not in the sky but on the ground, due to faster-than-expected advances in regional ballistic missile technology.
As of March 2008, the five-year procurement plan of the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) envisioned an initial 25-aircraft JSF squadron, the first orders for which should be finalised in 2009. Ultimately, the IAF plans to obtain up to 100 new JSF aircraft – down from the 100-plus units initially desired, even though the total purchase cost will be greater – and is aiming for initial operating capability (IOC) in 2012.
From 2001, when the Pentagon awarded the JSF development contract to a multinational team led by prime contractor Lockheed Martin, to just before the Lebanon War in 2006, Israel played the role of a casually interested observer.
As a second-tier security cooperation participant (SCP) rather than a full-fledged partner, Israel essentially had an ‘understanding’ with the Pentagon that it would buy some unspecified but large quantity of JSF aircraft over a multiyear period that would begin no earlier than 2014, and that it would accommodate the production constraints of the JSF contractors and the acquisition schedules of the nine partner nations. In other words, there was no urgency.
During this period the IAF had only one definite requirement, it wanted the
F-35A – the conventional take-off and landing (CTOL) version of the JSF. The relevant alternative for the IAF was the F-35B-the short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) version, but this choice had never really suited IAF commanders.
Reflecting on the IAF’s search for a replacement to its F-16 fleet, one retired IAF commander noted that ‘STOVL has been kicked around [by the war planners] for years, but we always rejected it in favour of the longer-range, bigger payload and lower price tag’ of CTOL designs.
This was consistent with the IAF’s longstanding doctrine, which embraced the principle that the best defence was a good offense and emphasised high-tempo operations from dedicated, well-stocked facilities. Not coincidentally, the F-35A was also the only item on the shopping list of the USAF, which shared with the IAF the same predilection for large, dug-in airbases.
Having started a programme in 2005 to harden the infrastructure of its airbases, moreover, the IAF did not believe that current or prospective improvements in the long-range missile capabilities of its adversaries would threaten base survivability.
As recently as June 2006, the IAF was expressing an interest in buying at least 100 F-35A aircraft sometime in 2014, the target year for first export of the CTOL version. Israel estimated total acquisition cost somewhere north of $5bn, implying a unit cost of roughly $50m.
REPRIORITISING THE WISH LIST
In September 2007, however, Israel announced definite plans for an initial purchase of 24 to 36 JSF aircraft. Critically, Israeli priorities had reversed decisively – the IAF now wanted the F-35B STOVL version hands down, despite its higher costs and lesser capabilities relative to the baseline F-35A. This shift was evidently a sensitive point, because Israeli spokesmen refused to confirm it.
Instead, IAF officials emphasised that they wanted the JSF as soon as it became available. This implies that the IAF wants the F-35B, insofar as the STOVL version is actually slated for IOC with the US Marine Corps (USMC) in 2012, a year or two earlier than the F-35A’s planned IOC with the USAF.
Indeed, during Defence Minister Ehud Barak’s October visit to the US, IDF officials asked if the initial delivery target for the fifth-generation JSF block – the first production batch of stealth units – could be tightened as early into 2012 as possible. Evidently, the Pentagon agreed to try on a best-effort basis, although resolving design and production kinks is never completely controllable a priori.
These developments suggest that, in the opinion of IDF planners, a new era of missile threat is imminent:
- Israel wants the STOVL capability of the F-35B because it fears that, in the future, long-range missiles in general and conventional-warhead ballistic missiles in particular will be potent enough to destroy the runways at IAF airbases – or at least render them unusable by CTOL aircraft.
- Israel wants the ‘B’ version ASAP because it believes that the missile programmes of its primary adversaries (and their collaborators) are progressing faster than previously expected.
MISSILES RISING – A VERY BRIEF HISTORY
Regarding the vulnerability of rearward bases, the 2006 Lebanon War was the first wake-up call for the IDF, which found the Hezbollah militias far more difficult to handle than expected. Of particular concern to IAF base commanders were Hezbollah’s use and/or possession of rockets and missiles with beyond-tactical ranges, as suggested by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah’s claim that Hezbollah would meet IAF air strikes on Beirut with counterstrikes on Tel Aviv.
Although such strikes did not occur, Hezbollah’s exhibition of capabilities hitherto thought beyond its reach, such as the downing of an Israeli helicopter with a SAM and the crippling of a navy vessel with a Chinese-designed, Iranian-built C-802 ASM, made betting against such a possibility unwise.
Since the cease-fire agreement in mid-August 2006, Iranian and Syrian missile technology has improved further:
- In January 2007, according to Israeli intelligence sources, Syria conducted a successful field test of a Scud-D missile built by North Korea. The range of the Scud-D is at least 440 miles, but more critically, unlike the Zelzal, the Scud-D is guided. In particular, subsequent IDF assessments suggested that the Syrians had upgraded Scud-D accuracy to the point at which the missile might pose a credible threat to airbase buildings, if not runways.
- In late November 2007, Iran successfully tested its Ashura ballistic missile. The Ashura has a range of over 1,200 miles, which enables it to cover all of Israel from launch sites in central Iran. Although no official consensus exists as to the accuracy of the Ashura, Western intelligence sources have indicated that the Ashura can carry MIRVs.
- On 4 February 2008, Iran conducted its first test launch of a prototype space rocket, the Kavoshgar-1, from a site southeast of Tehran. According to Iranian officials, this rocket will launch the Omid-1, Iran’s first full-on reconnaissance satellite, in the second half of 2008.
The rapidity of advances in missile technology by Iran (as well as North Korea, China and Russia) is impressive but not necessarily cause for immediate alarm. In particular, as the history of US and Soviet ICBM development illustrated, accuracy requires more time and effort to achieve than does range or even payload. Even the most recent US and Russian ICBMs have CEPs in excess of 300ft – which is more than adequate for nuclear warheads but not for conventional weapons that have to disable runways less than 150ft wide.
Other factors militate against the overnight emergence of a highly effective missile capability. For example, even nations with much more space-launch experience than Iran cannot guarantee mission success; from 2005 to present, the failure rate for all unmanned launches is around 7%.
However, the critical issue for strategists is not position, but momentum, and ballistic-missile development among developing countries has generally exceeded expectations. Trend velocity and acceleration is especially important for procurement planning, which itself runs on lifecycles often measured in decades.
On general principles, without addressing the current status of our prospects for ABM defence, staking the future survivability of critical assets on future outcomes that may not occur as desired is imprudent at best. For Israel, the IAF is indeed a critical strategic asset – as last autumn’s raid on a Syrian nuclear facility suggests.
COLUMN A AND COLUMN B: THE CHINESE MENU SOLUTION
In a nutshell, the F-35A provides roughly 20% more range and payload than the F-35B for a price that is about 25% less than the latter’s $65bn cost. On the other hand, the F-35B will be ready earlier and will be able to take off in as little as 500ft. Although comparing minimum roll distances is a tricky exercise, the F-35B will essentially need only a fraction of the runway an F-35A would use.
Is there a way to get the best of both worlds? According to one former IAF officer, splitting the total JSF acquisition between the ‘A’ and ‘B’ models would provide the optimal blend of capabilities given the uncertainty inherent in forecasting future threats.
In this respect, the ‘joint’ in the JSF programme would prove highly beneficial. The percentage of unique components for the three models will in no case exceed 45%, and the percentage of common components across all three models will be at least a quarter. Moreover, all three F-35 models have common avionics packages and logistical tails.
GETTING IT DONE
Going forward, the constraint on Israel’s ability to deploy the F-35B may be the IAF’s customisation programme. Traditionally, the IAF extensively modifies its military aircraft import to incorporate Israeli electronics and weapons systems, and the JSF will be no exception. In particular, the IAF undoubtedly will want all of its F-35s to carry Python AAMs and Spice ground-attack PGMs made by Rafael ADS, along with that firm’s electronic and communication suites.
At any rate, the F-35B platform itself had a rollout ceremony on 18 December 2007. At that event, USMC Commandant Gen. James Conway praised the STOVL version as a ‘generational leap in technology’ that will enable the Marines to fly from ‘unimproved surfaces at austere bases’ and thus will prove ‘extremely valuable’. Apparently, tomorrow’s IAF will have some of that Marine spirit, too.